I had written this response to reading Derrick Jensen’s Endgame Vol I: The Problem of Civilization when I first began the blog. I forgot about this post because I wanted to hunt down a reference from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, something else interfered and then I forgot about this entirely until the recent upset about Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance movement’s transphobic organization policies.
Derrick Jensen is an environmental activist, and anarchist, who also teaches creative writing to inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. He has written a number of books containing his reflections on activism, society, the state of the environment, the human imagination, and violence. The two Endgame books comprise a magnum opus of Jensen’s ideas and they have earned their author a number of accolades. In 2006 the online activist publication, Press Action, has named Jensen the ‘person of the year’(the website also called Endgame as the most important book of the decade). Also in November 2008, Utne Reader named Jensen one of it’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World.”
Endgame Volume I: The Problem of Civilization is divided up into over thirty chapters, each of which contains Jensen’s musings on the problems contemporary civilization presents to the environment. Jensen’s text is built upon a series of premises, 20 in total, which he argues the validity of largely through personal reflection and anecdote. Endgame begins by stating, rather flatly, that all writing is propaganda, which is not true, but is probably started as a rhetorical strategic grounding upon which Jensen can issue his other premises and convince a reader to accept his particular brand of poorly formed argumentation. Over the course of 30+ chapters, Jensen argues why civilization is horrible, why its collapse is inevitable, and why his readers should work as agents to hasten its collapse.
Considering the laurels he has received, Jensen is arguably the best known anti-civilization/environmentalist writer of the present scene. The difference in his approach to forming argument from others such as those already discussed on this blog (John Zerzan and Murray Bookchin) is probably significant to his appeal. Zerzan, a genuine anarcho-primitivist, writes essays in which he takes a cultural form (such as ‘numbers’) that is so deeply embedded into how we see our world that it appears natural and then explore the history of that form with regard to how it has contributed to the apparati of control that civilization imposes on its subjects. Bookchin, not a primitivist, but rather a philosopher who brought ecological concerns to the anarchist milieu, shows the history of human subjugation of man in precedent of human subjection of nature through a detailed analysis of political history in the West. Zerzan and Bookchin’s work is based on intellectual rigor and scholarship. Neither Zerzan or Bookchin actually call for the dissolution of civilization in their writing (at least not in the writing that I have read), but rather call upon the historical record to challenge contemporary assumptions held about modern society by the general populace, and other activists.
Jensen, who demonstrates a condescending contempt for intellectuals, argues for the collapse of civilization through a number of flawed approaches. Many of his arguments are targeted at aspects of contemporary civilization that aggravate him, however are not an intrinsic part of civilization. Civilization (which I feel absurd referring to as a unified monolith repeatedly) may reform in a manner that removes everything that Jensen finds so objectionable, without entering a freefall collapse. Another issue is that Jensen sets up numerous strawman arguments, often even using himself as the strawman. An example is his lamentation of the fact that he knows so many details about the life of boring celebrities such as Angelina Jolie. While he considers this to be something done to him, and attempts to figure out what it means, he also projects this conundrum onto civilized humanity at large, assuming that we all have an equally high investment in the lives of celebrities, which of course, is not true.
Furthermore, many of Jensen’s arguments are based on personal anecdotes and feelings. Almost all of Jensen’s stories revolve around him getting into an argument with someone that pertains to his anti-civilization ideas in some way. These stories usually end with Jensen getting the better of his adversary in a verbal argument. Much of Endgame are these transcriptions of arguments Jensen had with friends where he won and his friend acknowledged that he won. This particularly obnoxious form of presenting ideas may create the effect that Jensen is adept at proving his point and asserting the rightness of his ideas because they have been tested against the rhetorical skills of another.
I hate making Hitler comparisons and everything but really Jensen’s text of musings and feelings about the end of civilization put his work into contact with another, Mein Kampf. He offers his book as propaganda, rather than philosophy, as though an idea as extreme as the destruction of civilization does not need good ideas behind it, merely the right kind of feelings. He describes the collapse of civilization as a holocaust that will inevitably result in innumerable deaths, yet he also calls for acts of violence to hasten its fall. Jensen’s assertion that the collapse is a natural, inevitable event, is similar to the assumptions and assertions made by totalitarian governments of the past. In her 1951 text The Origins of Totalitarianism, German political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that one of the premises of the Third Reich was that humanity was naturally progressing towards the formation of a master race, and the NSDAP was simply accelerating that process. Similarly, under Stalin, the violent purges were merely the acceleration of the natural progress of history towards a classless society. Jensen’s call for violence in order to advance the cause of an inevitable end to civilization is ideologically similar, as well as philosophically blank.
Endgame’s chapters are grouped into sections, the first of which is titled ‘Apocalypse.’ Endgame may be interpreted as a text in the tradition of apocalyptic prophecy that always find new ground upon which to be renewed. The last major apocalyptic prophecy pertained to Y2K, (2012?) which was rooted in fears about the potential consequences of computerization. Desire to escape civilization is not new, in fact John Zerzan has edited a volume titled Against Civilization, a reader of anti-civilization writings that includes Jensen was well as Sigmund Freud, Theodor Adorno, and many others. Endgame follows from a decade of public debate about climate change, and a sense that our acceleration of technology has resulted in such a strain on earth’s resources that the limit is just about met.